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Federal Diary Live

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Stephen Barr
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, March 26, 2008; 12:00 PM

The Post's Stephen Barr is the author of The Federal Diary, which runs Monday through Friday in the Business news section. Steve has been a reporter and editor at The Post since 1979, including stints as Federal Page editor, congressional editor and a National staff writer covering federal management and workplace issues. He began writing the column in May 2000, and takes the column live to answer your questions Wednesdays at noon ET.

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A transcript follows.

Archive: Federal Diary Live transcripts

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Stephen Barr: Thanks to all joining in this discussion today! We'll go straight to your questions and comments.

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Virginia: You wrote: "The board's study found that federal managers, probably more than in the past, consider applicants from outside government because they are committed to hiring the best qualified applicants and want to improve the quality of their workforce." This is very demoralizing. In my agency, most of the new top outside hires were skilled in politics but not policy.

Stephen Barr: Your comments grow out of today's Federal Diary column. Most of these managers are hiring for specific skills and expertise, and probably have concluded that the in-house staff does not have what the agency needs.

Having said that, I found it interesting that a huge chunk of new employees being hired into the upper GS levels come from contractors. Does that suggest that contract employees bring certain skills to the table that are not learned elsewhere in the private sector?

For those of you interested in this study, it has been posted on the Web pages of the Merit Systems Protection Board.

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San Francisco: People who receive Social Security retirement income will receive a $600 Economic Stimulus Payment. Will other federal retirees also receive this one-time payment?

Stephen Barr: Whether you qualify for a rebate -- and the size of the rebate -- depends on your income level, dependents and other factors. The IRS tells me that taxable pensions count when you fill out a tax return, and count toward determining whether a person has a net income tax liability. Having a tax liability is one of the way you qualify for a rebate.

You also may get a rebate if you have no tax liability. For this purpose, taxable pensions don't count -- only earned income, such as wages, Social Security and certain railroad retirement and veterans benefits.

Confused? More information is available at the IRS Web site, which also has an online calculator to help you figure a rebate payment.

washingtonpost.com: IRS Economic Stimulus Payment Calculator

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Washington: I'm a federal employee, currently at a GS-14 Step 10, and am interviewing for a GS-15 position. Is there a rule/procedure in getting hired as a GS-15 as to what step you start as (assuming that you would make at least what you did previously)? Is this negotiable? Thanks.

Stephen Barr: In general, agencies promoting an employee from one GS grade to another grade must set the pay at a rate of the higher grade that will pay at least the equivalent of a two-step increase in the grade from which the worker was promoted, according to the Federal Employees Almanac, a widely used handbook.

If I've done the math right, that means you are headed for GS-15, step 6 territory. Congratulations! I do think the raises tied to promotions can be negotiated, and that agencies have the leeway to set pay at higher rates.

Again, I'm no expert. Any human resources types out there with a view on this?

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Baltimore: Stephen, OPM's proposal to offer a short-term disability benefit to federal employees raises several questions. If, as per your example in yesterday's Federal Diary, the employee would receive 60 percent of his salary for 12 weeks, is that 60 percent before or after taxes? Also, how would contributions to the TSP (and the government match) be affected during the period that the employee is receiving short-term disability benefits?

washingtonpost.com: OPM Calls for Short-Term Disability Insurance (Federal Diary, March 25)

Stephen Barr: Because OPM still is drawing up this proposal, I don't know if I can answer your questions. Generally speaking, I think disability insurance income is taxed, and I doubt you would be able to make any TSP contributions during this time because you probably would be placed in some sort of leave status by your agency. The devil is in the details, and I'm not up to speed on all this, alas.

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Atlanta: Hi Stephen. I'm one of those hires from outside the federal government who was hired for one of those "upper-level positions," defined as GS-12 through GS-15.

Unlike what the first poster suggests, I have no political experience -- I used to be a career (nonpolitical) employee at an agency of a state government. Most of the other outside hires I'm familiar with also came from state and/or local governments. We used to run federally-funded programs and/or do federally-funded projects at our former employers. Now we work for the agency that used to fund our former employers.

Stephen Barr: Thanks, Atlanta. It's also important to note that even though more non-feds are entering the upper levels as new hires, the overwhelming majority of these jobs (on the order of 80 percent) are filled by current feds who get promoted. Still, the merit board data shows a trend is under way, and it reflects how federal work and the skills needed has been changing.

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Washington: From this site:

A promotion is a change of an employee while continuously employed from one General Schedule (GS) grade to a higher GS grade.

Employee Coverage

Only GS employees who are promoted to a higher grade under the General Schedule without a break in service are covered by the two-step promotion rule in 5 U.S.C. 5334(b) and 5 CFR 531.214 (also, 5 CFR 531.243 for GM employees).

Two-Step Promotion Rule

The two-step promotion rule states that a GS employee promoted to a position in a higher grade is entitled to basic pay at the lowest rate of the higher grade that exceeds his or her existing rate of basic pay by not less than two step increases of the grade from which promoted. The two-step promotion rule must be applied using one of two methods-the standard method or the alternate method.

Stephen Barr: Thank you, Washington. A nice clarification.

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Frederick, Md.: Mr. Barr -- I wonder what you are hearing about the federal government's efforts to get more employees working from home? I do know of the current Telework Improvements Act of 2007 (HR 4106).

In my mind, telework has become an increasingly critical component of the federal government's efforts to develop continuity-of-operations plans and to effectively manage its human capital. Furthermore, telework helps alleviate traffic congestion and reduce vehicle emissions. As I understand current law, agencies have the authority to develop strategic plans, train employees and managers, and implement workforce policies to promote telework. To further the development of such policies, both HR 4106, as well as S. 1000, the Telework Enhancement Act of 2007, are designed to increase the number of employees eligible to telework.

I invite your attention to the fact that some agencies, including the Board of Veterans' Appeals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, demand increased productivity from all employees who telework ("Flexiplace" in Board vernacular.) While all federal agencies should demand that each employee be as productive as possible, if there is not an even playing field between the performance standards expected from teleworkers and those who continue to commute daily to work, the goals of any telework program would be defeated. Simply put, treating similarly situated employees in a disparate manner sends a clear message to employees that management discourages employees from participating in any telework (flexiplace) program. Hence, I ask that any telework legislation include language forbidding agencies from setting up two tiered performance standards which demand more from those who telework and less from those that do not.

Are you aware of the practice of requiring two different standards for the same employees? Is this legal? In other words, for example, at the Board of Veterans' Appeals, full-time attorneys, who work 40 hour weeks, are required to do 156 "credits." However, Board attorneys who work two days a week from home, while also working 40 hour weeks, and are doing the identical work, for the identical pay, are required to do 170 "credits." My thoughts are that these different performance standards cause a potential lack of interest for otherwise eligible employees to work at home -- thus defeating the work at home goals. Thank you.

Stephen Barr: Intriguing example you offer. From testimony I have heard on Capitol Hill, it is clear that agencies and the Congress want to ensure that telecommuting arrangements do not lower productivity, and there is a hope, it seems, that it will increase productivity because a person may be more focused and have fewer interruptions in a home office.

Sounds like you need to ask your managers why the standards are higher for teleworkers.

To your larger point, there seems to be an interest in Congress to promote telecommuting for the reasons you cite, but agency data suggests that managers are not sold on this practice yet.

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Washington: Mr. Barr - do you think you are unfairly maligning government employees and associating them necessarily as being less qualified than private sector employees?

I think the anti-affirmative action debate has accomplished one of the greatest dangers in this society in casting doubt on black American capability. However, in my view, these opponents are not really interested in fostering a meritocracy, but in maintaining historical patterns of professional and economic privilege and exclusion. This is because anti-affirmative action opponents are only dedicated to tearing down a program designed to give blacks equal opportunity. They are not as dedicated to combating workplace or other structural forms of racism against black Americans or women, etc. -- and even in many cases, are persons who are interested in watering-down merit systems to foster inequitable treatment.

Let's take the patent office for example. Jon Dudas is a political appointee. He is the director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Mary Peterlin is his Deputy Director. Both of them come from the Hill, so it can't be said that they really come from outside of the government -- however, they come from outside of the field of intellectual property.

Patent attorneys, law professors and other professionals have complained loudly about Jon Dudas's and Ms. Peterlin's lack of experience and qualifications for their jobs. A group of patent attorneys, as you reported in the Federal Diary, even complained that this lack of experience has filtered down to senior managers who have an antagonistic relationship with their patent examiner subordinates -- and who do not wield the scientific and legal expertise in their examination of patent applications.

In my view as a patent examiner, I agree with some professionals who've noted that Jon Dudas and Ms. Peterlin are politicians rather than practitioners -- and that their being politicians rather than practitioners has ill-served the agency and hurt inventors who then have to waste thousands of dollars defending themselves from spurious rejections put into place some managers.

The question is not who is more inherently qualified than the other. The question is, are government agencies committed to recognizing talent from within irrespective of race, gender or color, as well as recruiting talent from without? Or are agencies more interested in not developing the careers of their employees on the inside?

Stephen Barr: No, I don't think that reporting on a study and survey data means I'm interested in undermining the federal workforce. Most managers prefer to promote from within, assuming the job applicants are equals, but this study shows managers are open to bringing in outsiders if they are the most qualified, and that's a key part of fair and open competition for jobs.

Now, your other remarks go the issue of how much federal employees respect their leaders. We know from recent employee surveys that at least half do not hold positive views toward their agency leaders. That, in my view, stirs a separate debate over the quality of political appointees and how they are selected.

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washingtonpost.com: In Search of Highly Skilled Workers (U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board Report)

Stephen Barr: Here's a handy link to the merit board study, kindly provided by our washingtonpost.com producer.

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Telework: Union steward here - are you a member of your bargaining unit? (You should be a member of your union too!.) If so, check your bargaining agreement. It may prohibit two different standards of work expectations/assignments for teleworkers and office workers.

Stephen Barr: Good point -- thanks for making it.

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Re: Promothion from 14/10 to 15/?: Any way you look at it, this is great news for this person! Good luck in the new job. For most of us, we still are scratching the bottom of the ladder in hopes of one day reaching that goal of "upper" management.

Stephen Barr: Well said. Thanks.

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Baltimore: A government agency has a responsibility to make their own employees probable to the high-graded jobs. That said, I think we'll see more and more capable individuals attracted to federal service in their later years in life to take advantage of subsidized health benefits in retirement, a defined retirement package like FERS and the TSP matching. I think that with the majority of the private sector dropping these benefits, more people will look to the feds when they are about 20 years from retiring for FERS and TSP, and only five years for the health benefits.

Stephen Barr: Excellent point, Baltimore. The study found that "job security" and "government benefits" were key attractions for these people coming to Uncle Sam.

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Today's column: I wonder about the finer details of what you based your article on, and any differences based on agency or geographic location. Other factors are whether these positions are temporary, or are filled through alternate hiring authority. One example of alternate hiring may be through the military spouse avenue.

My experience with 12/13 positions is that they have been given through internal agency avenues based on the gamed job description. Of course there are temp or term jobs that are open, but I would not touch them because it affects retirement.

Many Defense positions are filled through the avenue of military-civilian conversions, where a person on a Friday leaves as a military employee and comes in Monday as a civilian. I am sure the Department of Defense will be very big on hiring 20-plus year veterans for GS-12 or greater positions. I have known many who retired after serving who were hired as a civilian someplace else on base, usually as a GS-12 or GS-13.

Stephen Barr: The study seems to suggest that the departments of Defense and Homeland Security tend to hire more so-called outsiders. The study also noted that all agencies hired from outside for information technology jobs. So my guess is that this kind of hiring into upper-level jobs has more to do with occupations than with geography.

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Washington: Hi. Can someone tell me if a QSI (quality step increase) replaces a WGI? For example, if a staff member is due a WGI in in two years and she/he receives a QSI, will the staff member receive her/his WGI at the two-year mark, or will the QSI cause the WGI date to change? Many thanks.

Stephen Barr: Okay folks, I'm clearly not up to answering this query. Help us out, please.

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QSI/WGI: Union Steward again -- if you get a Quality Step Increase, you should also get your Within Grade Increase as scheduled. Check your bargaining agreement/talk to your union steward.

Stephen Barr: Thanks much! Good to know someone reads the fine print on these pay and employment rules!

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Washington -- QSI: My understanding is that a QSI does not alter the schedule for WGIs. If somebody is due for a WGI in two years and gets a QSI, the WGI still should come in two years.

Stephen Barr: And thank you for that keen eye, too!

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Washington: I'm not in human resources, but my WGI was not affected by my QSI. I was a 13-1, got a QSI to a step 2, and a month or so later -- on my regularly scheduled date -- got my WGI to a step 3.

Stephen Barr: Sounds like the system is working as intended. Thanks for your posting.

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Re Telework: I was able to telework for 12 years under two different supervisors who highly endorsed it; new supervisor comes in, doesn't like it when her employees are not seen, cancels all telework ... go figure!

Stephen Barr: Sigh. OPM has suggested that managers need training in telework, and this certainly makes that case.

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Takoma Park: Hi Stephen. I am nearing retirement and wanted to check whether I understood an insurance-related question correctly. I am in FERS. Is it true that I must select a pension with a survivor annuity -- in this case my wife -- in order for her to qualify for FEHB insurance after I die? Thank you.

Stephen Barr: That is correct. When you get ready to do the paperwork, engage your HR staffer in a discussion on this, because it is a key part of your financial planning.

Once again, we've run out of time. Thank you for the questions and comments, and we'll see you back here at noon next Wednesday!

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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